Every so often, I point readers towards books or movies that I think constitute essential reads/views for grown ups. I did it most recently with Muriel Barbery's fabulous The Elegance of the Hedgehog which was -- to my mind, at least -- all about adulthood.
This week I'm going to do it again with David Grossman's beautifully raw novel, To the End of the Land. This is, quite possibly, the saddest book I've ever read.
It recounts one woman's walk across Israel while her 18-year-old son is called up for a 28-day military exercise. She sets off on this walk -- which runs the span of the entire novel -- because she doesn't want to be home if and when the authorities try to find her should her son die in combat.
On the jacket cover, the novelist Nicole Krauss (The History of Love) writes: "Very rarely you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same."
Krauss nails it, in my opinion, and I can't recommend this book enough, especially for those of you who -- like me -- share a fondness for sad books.
Here are five reasons I think everyone should read this book:
1. It's about motherhood. This is first and foremost a book about being a parent -- and, perhaps even more specifically, being a mother. In the wake of the recent Oscars ceremony, much has been made of Natalie Portman's famous throwaway line in which she thanked her fiance for giving her the "most important role" of her life -- motherhood. Some writers, like Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams, worried aloud that Portman was doing women a disservice by trumpeting babies over career. Others -- notably my Politics Daily colleague Joanne Bamberger -- endorsed Portman's take on the dual roles many women confront. As Joanne writes, "On some level being a mother is the greatest role of my life -- not superior to others, just the greatest in terms of challenges and rewards." If you're feeling caught between these two feminist reads of the Portman moment, then read Grossman's book. It reveals the fierce, all-consuming, painful and even ambivalent nature of a mother's love in perhaps the most honest way I've ever seen.
2. It's about parenting a teen. I wrote recently about the challenges of parenting teenagers in light of new data we have about them. Boy, does this book drive that home. Grossman renders beautifully the delicate mixture of vulnerability and independence that characterizes teenagers (in this case, boys) in a way that will resonate and, again, cut you to the quick.
3. It's about what might have been. I once wrote a post about the "road not taken" in which I examined wistfulness as a leit motif of adulthood. My basic point was that whether it's who you marry or what career you choose or where you live, part of being a grown up is being plagued by what might have been. Because To the End of the Land centers around a relationship between two ex-lovers who've gone their separate ways (as a result of war) and then reunite in a literal journey of self-discovery, it plays out the whole "road not taken" concept in real time. Wow.
4. It's about patriotism. I'm not a terribly patriotic individual. It's not that I have a great deal of antipathy for the mothership, I'm just not all that inclined to wave a flag or jump on a Fourth of July parade float. But if you live in Israel, you have no choice but to be patriotic. Patriotism is woven into the very fiber of the country, even for those (like the protagonist in this book) who are ambivalent about where they want their country headed. Grappling with one's patriotism isn't something you deal with as a child. But it is something which -- explicitly or implicitly -- everyone must come to terms with as a grown up.
5. It's about Israel. This is also a book about Israel and the unbelievably complicated feelings it arouses in its citizens. One of the things I liked most about the book is that no one emerges as a winner in the seemingly eternal and intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has dominated (until quite recently) our coverage of the Middle East: not the Israelis, not the Arabs, not foreign powers like the U.S. who figure largely there. However you feel about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, there is no question that resolving it is central to a lasting peace in the Middle East, even with all of the other things going on in the region right now. That is an enduring reality of our collective adulthood.